By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette — Two days after watching their team blow a chance to clinch the Mid Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title, fans of the Niagara University men's basketball team can rest easy.
After Thursday's home loss to Rider and a too-close-for-comfort first half against last-place St. Peter's on Saturday, the Purple Eagles showed why their on top of the MAAC, dominating the Peacocks in the second half en route to a 78-61 win at the Gallagher Center, the top seed in the conference tournament and an automatic NIT bid.
"Obviously, we're disappointed we didn't win Thursday," NU coach Joe Mihalich said. "If we had done that, because of (Loyola's loss) last night, we would've already won the championship coming into today.
"But as I said to the guys yesterday, that loss Thursday could be the best thing to happen to us all year. ... I was also reminded, we're a young team. This is the first time these freshmen and sophomores had a championship on the line and they had to win. We failed the test Thursday night, but as fate would have it, we passed the test today. I thought we played like champions."
The Purple Eagles hit their first five shots of the game to jump out to an 11-5 lead. On senior night, it was Devon White, NU's lone active fourth-year player, who opened the scoring with a short jump shot from the paint.
NU (18-12, 13-5) led by as much as 10 early in the first half, but the Peacocks (9-20, 3-15), with the help of an 11-2 run, would rally to tie the game at 26. Ameen Tanksley's 3-pointer with 2:09 left in the half gave the Eagles the lead for good, and T.J. Cline hit a 3 off a pick play with guard Juan'ya Green with 2 seconds left in the half to give NU a 32-28 lead at the break.
White set the tone in the second, altering a shot on defense and finishing inside on offense for the half's first points. After shooting just 4 of 12 (33.3 percent) from beyond the arc in the first half, the Purps found their found their range in second, going 5 of 9 (55.6 percent) from deep after the break.
Green and Marvin Jordan assisted one another on a pair of 3s on back-to-back possessions to kick start a 16-4 run that lasted 5:11, including a four-point play from Antoine Mason.
After St. Peter's Yvon Raymond hit from deep, Cline drained a 3 and completed a three-point play to send the crowd into a frenzy.
"Their crowd was excellent, not just feeding off their 3s but our missed free throws," said St. Peter's coach John Dunne about NU's run. "Their good players, especially up here, they can do that to you."
Mason capped a 7-0 NU run with a fast-break layup on a feed from Green with 6:30 remaining that put the game in hand with a 71-44 lead.
Mason and Cline led NU with 14 points apiece, while Green and Jordan each added 12. Green finished one assists away from a double-double while having no turnovers.
NU will play the winner of the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the MAAC Tournament on ESPN3. This year's tournament is hosted by the University of Massachusetts.Follow Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler for updates on all your local teams.